‘‘ This is an age of protest, the people’s only weapon against the authorities and Nigerian youths are wielding it across every sphere’’
Protests are the densest form of communication and at times, it is all the people have to try to reshape a nation.
In 2019, Hong Kong had a series of protests lasting months that at times saw over 800,000 protesters marching across the city.
At some point, the protests in certain areas turned dangerous as demonstrators attempted to hold hostage university campuses and public properties.
While the police fought to regain control of these situations, the ‘‘wo, lei, fei,’’ — name for protesters who stick to “peaceful, rational, non-violent” means of resistance and demonstration — continued their protests.
These are people whose protests typically take the form of none or little confrontation, mass rallies and marches, or activities like singing, setting up roadblocks, and forming city-wide tributes. [Sound familiar?]
‘‘Everybody run, run, run, everybody scatter, scatter/ some people lost some bread, some people just die… Them leave sorrow, tears, and blood, them regular trademark’’
Nigeria has always been an angry nation, everything around us since independence is enough to make us angry, but somehow, we have largely stayed peaceful, perhaps humble, accepting every form of oppression and cowering in the face of intimidation; the ‘sufferin and smilin’ citizens of the world.
But for the better part of the last two weeks, it became clearly apparent that Nigerian youths or ‘Generation Z’ as the majority preferred, had had enough. Like that scene in Avengers where Mark Ruffalo’s anger reaches its limits and he turns into the Incredible Hulk, they just couldn’t take any more of the corruption and brutality by Nigerian police, sparking a wave of nationwide protests.
In their hundreds, then thousands, from social media, they took to the streets in protest against an arm of the nation’s police force, SARS [Special Anti-Robbery Squad], a unit set-up in the 1990s as a stop-gap against rising crime and kidnapping among its citizens.
Over the last two decades, this unit has grown its reputation not particularly in solving crimes or saving lives, but in doing everything it was set-up to counter; brutalize, kidnap, frame, obtain and even kill.
In expressing anger and hitting the streets, the hope was that they would get to speak honestly to power and have a President that rarely communicates with his people to listen. The hope was to accommodate people with shared experiences in the hands of this unit to share their stories and be more optimistic about the future. The hope was for better, for a right just to live.
Things would, however, reach its darkest heights on the night of Tuesday, October 20, 2020, as protesters continuing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie best described as ‘‘peaceful, insistently peaceful, consistently peaceful’’ protests, were seated on the floor, singing the national anthem and patriotically waving the Nigerian flags at the Lekki Toll Gate, one of the symbolic venues of the protests.
Soldiers would soon arrive under the guise of enforcing a curfew issued by the state government, and what followed was what the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti described as their ‘regular trademark’ in his 1977 classic, ‘‘Sorrows, Tears and Blood.’’
Growing up, there was this popular saying that the Nigerian military only heard the command ‘Go’ and never the restraint ‘Come.’ In fact, it was bragged about as some form of approbation.
And on this day with at least 200 protesters gathered and no reports of weapons being hurled or violence from their side, the military hiding under the cloak of darkness[as the lights around the area were reportedly put off] and some unknown command [The Lagos State Governor has stated that the hierarchy and chain of military command are not within his control] embarked on a crackdown leading to the most violent outcome the city had witnessed in decades.
In the wake of that tragic night, social media has been rocked with a slew of well propagated fake news, fake deaths, fake missing people [From both the citizens and the Government], and cases of denials, downplaying, or even outright silence on the Lekki incident from the Presidency that would make even the sanest minds question their truth.
The strategy is clear - it is easier to make someone doubt the truth than believe an outright lie - so find ways to corrupt their truth.
Fake news or exaggerated tales is not exclusive to this protest, it is common with every trending topic. There are always elements willing to capitalize on every opportunity to spread fear while increasing likes and followers; it’s the social media curse and on this occasion, one that has played into the hands of the authorities.
The Lagos State Government claims that no death was recorded on the night after grudgingly accepting that men in the military outfit were indeed present on the ground. I was not physically present at the Lekki toll gate on the said night, but I was one of the over 150,000 people who joined DJ Switch’s IG Live to have an idea of what was happening, while others followed the chain of events on @godson45 Live who gave a more extensive detail of how the day went.
Through phone lights, confused voices, and scary descriptions, I watched for the better part of two hours as people ran in fear, people describing events around them, as someone with a bullet in his thigh was almost subject to ‘surgery’ from clearly inexperienced hands who had only seen things like this happen in movies. ‘‘Tie something around his leg,’’ one suggested, while another placed some cloth in his mouth and encouraged him to bite hard as they decided on who would try to remove the bullet with a sharp object while gunshots continued to go off in the background.
Multiple eyewitnesses and videos show compelling evidence of people caught in the line of fire, while over 20 people were confirmed receiving treatment from gunshot wounds and other injuries.
Just so we are clear, no matter the narrative that is being spun or how intelligent their stories may seem, the truth remains that soldiers from the Nigerian army arrived at a scene where protesters gathered peacefully and without any form of resistance fired live ammunition, killing a number of them.
How many were killed? we may never know. Where the bodies are today, we may never be able to tell [as the military do have a record of hiding bodies] or as I once witnessed an army officer tell a fellow passenger on my way to Ebonyi State in 2012, ‘‘I will shoot you here and throw your body in the bush,” but the incorruptible truth is that IT DID HAPPEN and we will never forget.
There have been several questions in the aftermath of that event, the popular one being, why were protesters out there despite a curfew and the government accepting their demands, with the creation of a new unit, SWAT?
Perhaps, the protesters were under no illusions about the powers they were confronting. This is not the first time Nigerians are protesting and on multiple occasions in the past, the government had pronounced ineffective bans on the unit, draining any form of public trust one may have for their directives. The people had been patient for years, how hard could it have been for the Government to reciprocate this patience and stay longer on the dialogue table instead of bringing out the guns on peaceful protesters?
The other question is that the protests were rapidly escalating to violence as clashes with pro-Sars groups or hoodlums were being reported in certain states and the governors could not fold their arms and do nothing.
And the response is simple, there are always people willing to profit from these engagements for their own ends, and it is not the responsibility of protesters to arrest this situation.
Why didn’t the government turn the military in the direction of those with weapons and not those with flags? Has there been any arrest of the hoodlums who attacked protesters at Alausa or the politician who opened fire at protesters at Abule Egba? How come it was only the peaceful protesters that felt the wrath of their nation's military?
On a final note, beyond the agitations for End Sars, the bigger picture had always been for a holistic reform of the police. The continuous wave of mayhem that has broken out nationwide particularly in the last few days with senseless burnings and lootings while security agents either look away or even encourage the looters makes it more important, that we reform those who protect us.
From Lekki to Bode Thomas, Benin City to Oyo State, with the level of poverty that surrounds us, when this violence erupts, no one is safe, and only with a reformed police unit, do we have any chance of a sane society. The demand is simple, the demand is clear. #EndSars #ReformTheNigerianPolice